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Minding the Gap (The Criterion Collection)
I've crowed on various online platforms about the merits of Minding the Gap since first seeing it, and fully admit to some personal biases that I'll discuss in a second. But first, the things to know about Minding the Gap are that it is about three skateboarders in Illinois who seek a venue for their emotions, some of which are due to neglect and abuse from their fathers. A feature debut for Bing Liu, the documentary that spanned several years in their lives was produced by Gordon Quinn, whose name may be familiar to you if you remember Hoop Dreams, the film focusing on a couple of inner city Chicago kids as they try to realize their dreams of playing in the NBA.
The film looks at the lives of Zack Mulligan, a second generation skater, Kiere Johnson, an African American kid who is an initial oddity at the skate park, and Liu, a Vietnamese immigrant who found the two, they have been friends for a while, and the film shows them skating through the vast empty streets of Rockford, Illinois, a Rust Belt town in the northern part of the state. More than showing their skating, Liu starts to examine the relationships Zack and Kiere had with their Dads, if they had any at all. The story shows us Zack and his girlfriend Nina, already pregnant with his child when me meet them early in the film, and the film shows us Zack and Nina adjusting to their lives as parents, their relationship with each other and Zack's substance abuse issues becoming an issue in their lives and the lives of their son, who is born early in the film and who we see with Nina as she tries to raise a boy while trying to deal with the one who is her son's father. As Liu learns about the abuse that his friends suffer, he starts to evaluate the abuse he suffered in his family, and he also becomes part of the story he tries to tell, and shows the importance of skating to the boys as they turn into men.
While Minding the Gap shows you a bunch of skateboarding, the film is less about the act of skateboarding and the desire to be a free soul, when people who love them are attempting to break their freedom, intentionally or not. Zack's "arc" is one that has a lot of bravado and still trying to be the person he wanted to be, but as a father, taking a car to Milwaukee and then flying to Denver just can't be a thing you do. And there's a sense that he knows this but being macho is a futile façade. Nina gets her own moments against Zack also, and her evolution is straightforward and courageous.
Liu and Kiere have a little more screentime, with the latter serving as the film's heart. Liu sees a lot of his story in Kiere's, and his interviews with his stepbrother and mother, the latter of which was done in pseudo ‘Interrotron' style by her son, is heartbreaking in terms of her admissions and tears. She may have known some of what occurred under their roof, but seeing and hearing it echoed in her children tears her apart. Kiere is more upfront about the abuse he received from his father, and deals with her mother and her various relationships with ease because, well, it couldn't have gotten worse than what he had, right? His father died when he was young, and his not having the chance to speak his peace to him seems to still bug him. But he wants to get out of Rockford, and works hard to do so. And you root for him to do so as much as possible, and seeing the emotions on his face give you joy, pain and laughs.
Moreover, neglect and/or abuse by fathers (even parents) to their children in Minding the Gap is both startling and I think a little more widespread than people would admit. I remember seeing the film and getting really emotional by it because it was a lack of relation by the fathers that I shared a connection to. The film's award push happened shortly before the unrelated hospitalizations and deaths of both of my parents, and it was something I went back to as I was dealing with their disappearance from my life. I still think about them from time to time and wonder what I could have done to or for them before they passed. Living in the DC suburbs is definitely NOT the Rust Belt, but the heartache is the same, so the best thing I can think of to do is go back to the basics and leave the world a better place than when I got it, and try to be a better parent to my children than what I got. And that transcends whatever you may think about watching a whole bunch of skateboarding in a documentary, but do you see why they do what they do.The Blu-ray:
Criterion takes the 1.78:1 widescreen format of the film and gives it a high-definition transfer that looks fresh. In seeing in on Hulu and PBS (the film was shown on the latter just before the Academy awards as the film was nominated for a Best Documentary Feature nod) I remember that there was a little more grain and grit in the image, and the film grain is retained subtly while reproducing the image and color palette loyally. It looks great on Blu-ray.The Sound:
The DTS-HD MA soundtrack for the film is up to the task. Skateboarding is natural and pans through channels, and dialogue is clean as can be. The score by Nathan Halpern and Chris Ruggiero is a nice complement to the film, and The Mountain Goats' "This Year" on the end credits provides a broad soundstage for the song. All in all a nice technical presentation for the film.The Extras:
Criterion loads up the extras as you would expect, starting with two commentaries. The first is obviously more jovial as they discuss Kiere's fear of heights, or reactions and experiences to them since the film cam how. Zack talks about parenthood now and how skating in Rockford is now, and on his son and his future. Zack sounds like he may not be completely accepting of the fights he and Nina got in, but I'm not sure on it. That aside it is a good commentary. Liu does a solo one that gets into shot recollection and is more technically focused on the cameras used for the film, and explains some of the cuts in the film and recalls when some of the scenes took place. He talks about his abuse a little and on Zack and Nina and his place in telling one (or both) of them what he knows. It is a nice accompaniment as well.
Next up is "Nina and Bing" (16:48), where the two get together for a Zoom chat where they catch up and Nina talks about where she is in her life now, and gets into her backstory before meeting Zack. She shares her thoughts on that time and on the film and meeting people from it, and the attention she received in it. She also talks about their son and the inevitable exposure to the film he'll get. Tony Hawk sits down for an interview (11:42) where he talks about how he came to skating and his thoughts on the skating in the film, and why this film is so good for skateboarders. He gets into the meaning of some of the figures in town like the skateboard shop owner, and on his friendship with Kiere. "A Very Tricky Challenge" (33:14) gets into the origins of the film and how Liu brings himself into the film. The larger abuse themes are touched upon by Quinn, producer Diane Quon and Liu, and some earlier works of Liu with this are shown. The discretion of the subjects in the film is recalled and how they put the film together and its subsequent reaction. It's part making-of and moral discussion and is more fascinating than I expected. "Nuoc" (23:07) is a short film by Liu looking at Vietnamese immigrants as they work in America. Four outtakes (20:58), each with introduction, are included, most (save for Zack and Nina's son being born) are justifiably excised. The trailer (1:36) completes things.Final Thoughts:
Minding the Gap isn't just about three skateboarding friends, it examines familial themes of abuse and neglect through the eyes of those friends, and is not afraid to show emotion and vulnerability in each of them, making them supremely relatable and elevates the film into a moment in time for many. Technically the film looks and sounds great, and the bonus materials are also quite good an include participation from all of the main subjects in the film. Everyone here has Hulu and if you have not seen it, get on it, and the disc is a gem.